Friday, January 18, 2008
Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias have both flagged the news that France has just signed an agreement with the UAE to establish a permanent military base just across the Strait of Hormuz from Iran. Kevin cites Marc Lynch, who writes:
Early spin has suggested that this will allow France to better cooperate with the US against Iran, but this seems shortsighted. A long-term French strategic position in the Gulf challenges American exclusivity, and potentially undermines the fundamental architecture of the hegemonic American position in the Gulf. (Link included from original.)
Matthew suggests that the latter might be a good thing, in that it will re-balance the dysfunctional relationship between American military commitments and European strategic interests.
The fact is, there's a bit of all three going on. The base in question is for the moment largely symbolic given its limited size and the fact that it won't be operational for a year at least. But its location at the bottleneck of the Strait of Hormuz and very close to Iran does in fact constitute a pressure point on Tehran. That France happens to be the most forceful and most credible advocate right now for preventing Iran from developing a nuclear fuel enrichment capacity is significant. Their position is not so much in alignment with ours on Iran so much as it is an ideal version of what ours should have been from the start: Clear-sighted, non-hysterical, with firm demands and rewarding incentives.
On the other hand, as I argued on the very first day of Nicolas Sarkozy's presidency, he has a very ambitious vision for France's role in the world, and he's pretty savvy about getting what he wants. As for the French presence he's establishing, it's not limited to the military and it's not limited to the Gulf. Sarkozy has been using a nuclear energy foreign policy to establish France's strategic position throughout the Arab world. In the eight months since he took office, he has already signed civil nuclear cooperation agreements with Morocco, Libya, Algeria, and the UAE, while offering assistance to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Significantly, this is in direct opposition to the American line of discouraging the proliferation of civil nuclear capacity in the Middle East, especially in the circumstances now surrounding the Iranian standoff.
So while Matthew is correct in suggesting that Europe in general and France in particular having the capacity to put their military money where their mouth is will balance the trans-Atlantic relationship, that will in effect be a development that lessens America's strategic leverage in the world. In other words, good-by to the world's reluctant policeman, hello to the long-announced French vision of the multi-polar world. This isn't going to happen overnight, but it is definitely the way Sarkozy would like to see things develop.
That it's ineluctable does not necessarily mean that it will be advantageous to the US. The alternative, however, of an America that serves as the military firewall to all the world's brushfires, is no longer sustainable.